10 excellent books for illustrators to inspire and help refine skills

Boost your abilities and raise your earning power with the best art books on the market. We present a curated list to help you develop your illustration practice.

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Image licensed via Adobe Stock

Building your skills as an illustrator is mainly about practice, practice, practice. But you have to know the fundamentals first. And even if you've had years of experience and success, it's easy to forget some of those fundamentals or realise that you may have missed a few lessons the first time.

Even if that isn't the case, refreshing your familiarity with and understanding of the basics of art theory is a great way to get re-enthused about your discipline, reinvigorate your practice, and give you fresh ideas about approaching specific projects.

Also, there are many different types of illustration, and few of us have mastered them all. So whether you need to boost your skills in life drawing, CG sculpting or paints and oils, there are a ton of books on the market to guide you through.

With so many, though, it's tough to know where to start. So below, we've gathered together the very best books for illustrators on the market today.

Whether you're a novice illustrator seeking to learn the ropes or a seasoned artist looking to refine your skills, the right resources can make a significant difference in your creative journey. With that in mind, here are ten exceptional books that every illustrator should consider adding to their reading list.

1. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards

Want to nurture the creative side of your brain? This groundbreaking book offers insights into the mental processes behind visual creativity and provides 40 exercises to enhance observational skills and practise your drawing abilities. Betty Edwards' classic work delves into the psychology of artistry and provides practical exercises to enhance observational skills. In short, it's a transformative read that can unlock the potential of your creative mind.

That said, it's not just all theoretical. The book also covers 40 exercises in a range of practical subject matters, from portrait drawing and still life to landscapes and imaginative drawing. You'll also find advice for various mediums, such as pen and ink, charcoal and graphite, and a pull-out viewfinder tool.

2. Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney

If you want to make your illustrations look more realistic, here's our top recommendation. This comprehensive book examines the properties of light and colour in detail, helping you gain a fundamental understanding that's applicable across various mediums. That makes it an essential read for illustrators who want to infuse their work with realism and dimension.

Author James Gurney is a successful artist, teacher, blogger and regular contributor to several art magazines. And he harnesses all this experience here, helping you understand the interaction between light and the objects it touches. In short, it brilliantly bridges the gap between abstract theory and practical knowledge.

3. The Art of Urban Sketching by Gabriel Campanario

Sketching on the streets is a great way to build your skills as an artist, and here's a great place to start. Author Gabriel Campanario takes you on a visual journey through many world cities, inspiring you to capture the essence of urban landscapes in your sketchpad.

Illustrated with over 700 beautiful, contemporary illustrations, this beautiful volume explains urban sketching within the context of a long historical tradition and how it is practised today. It also includes profiles of leading practitioners, discusses the benefits of working in this art form, and shows how you can participate and experience it through modern-day social networks and online activity. In short, it's packed with inspiration, as well as insights that will help you capture the energy and atmosphere of bustling cityscapes through on-location sketches.

4. Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis

Even if you're an experienced illustrator, it's often useful to reacquaint yourself with the basics. Andrew Loomis is an iconic figure in art education, and here, he presents the foundational principles of illustration in this comprehensive guide.

From anatomy to composition, this book covers it all, making it a must-have reference for illustrators. It's divided into seven sections: Line, Tone, Color, Telling the Story, Creating Ideas, Fields of Illustration, and Experimenting and Studies. Along the way, you'll find plenty of instructions, tips, insider experiences, and incredible illustrations.

5. Illustration Workshop: Find Your Style, Practice Drawing Skills, and Build a Stellar Portfolio by Mary Kate McDevitt

Practice makes perfect as an illustrator, but sometimes, you need a clear pathway to follow. This book offers a series of guided exercises and challenges aimed at helping illustrators refine their style and build a robust portfolio.

Mary Kate McDevitt brings her years of industry expertise to bear in this book, which is essentially a hands-on workshop designed to help illustrators discover their unique style while honing their drawing skills. The practical exercises and portfolio-building tips you'll find here will be useful for illustrators at any stage of their career.

6. How to Draw: Drawing and Sketching Objects and Environments from Your Imagination by Scott Robertson and Thomas Bertling

For illustrators with a penchant for technical drawing, Scott Robertson and Thomas Bertling's book provides insights into translating complex ideas from imagination to paper. Aimed at artists, architects and designers, this is a masterclass in the art of drawing objects, vehicles, and environments.

Starting with the most basic perspective drawing skills, early chapters explain how to draw accurate perspective grids and ellipses that, in later chapters, provide the foundation for more complex forms. Plus, the research and design processes used to generate visual concepts are demonstrated clearly by the authors. It's also worth noting that more than 25 pages can be scanned via a smartphone or tablet using the Design Studio Press app, which links to video tutorials for that section of the book.

7. The Sketchbook Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking by Mike Rohde

Preparation is key to illustration, but if you're unsure how to go about it, this book will get you started. In a deep dive into the art of sketch-noting, author Mike Rohde walks you through how to capture ideas visually and make your notes more engaging and memorable. He also addresses most people's fear of drawing by showing, step-by-step, how to quickly draw people, faces, type and simple objects for effective and fast sketch-noting.

The book is presented as if it's a peek into the author's private sketch-note journal but functions like a beginner's guide to sketch-noting. Overall, you'll find easy-to-follow instructions for drawing out your notes that will leave you itching to get started.

8. Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel

Illustrating natural scenes is a skill all in itself. And if you're looking for inspiration, you'll find it here. A true visual treat, this book showcases the intricate illustrations of natural organisms first published in 1899-1904 by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel.

These geometric shapes and natural forms still influence artists and designers to this day. This volume highlights the research and findings of this natural scientist and explains how modern microscopes have confirmed the accuracy of Haeckel's prints. In short, you'll find endless inspiration here for anyone fascinated by drawing the natural world.

9.The Silver Way: Techniques, Tips, and Tutorials for Effective Character Design by Stephen Silver

Character design is a vital skill for any illustrator to develop. This book by renowned expert Stephen Silver equips illustrators with practical techniques and insights that will help them breathe life into their characters and, importantly, make them relatable and compelling.

Whether you're a professional artist wanting to work on your character design skills or an aspiring illustrator fresh out of school, The Silver Way will help you build your confidence and strengthen your work in order to successfully design characters for any project, in any style. It features a range of drawing techniques and easy-to-follow tutorials developed through Stephen's decades of experience as an artist on animated shows such as Kim Possible and Danny Phantom and as the owner of Silver Drawing Academy.

10. Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes by Walt Stanchfield

This compilation of masterclass lectures is a goldmine of wisdom for illustrators looking to imbue their work with movement and emotion. Gesture drawing is a critical skill, and this book will help you master it. And the author really knows what he's talking about.

This classic book was written by Walt Stanchfield, who began work for the Walt Disney Studios in the 1950s and whose work can be seen in films such as Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, and Peter Pan. Edited by Disney Legend and Oscar-nominated producer Don Hahn, whose credits include Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Hunchback of Notre Dame, you can be sure that the advice in this book will help lift your abilities as an illustrator.


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